Tag Archives: Gender

What does it mean when words ‘really’ mean something: Dismiss the Miss


A few days ago, I tweeted a link to an article in TES:

Today, I got the following response back:

@lizzielh is absolutely right. As the title of an as yet unpublished blog post of mine goes: “Words don’t mean things, people mean things”. I even wrote a whole book chapter on that with the same title as this post.

Indeed, if it had been me writing on the topic, I would have chosen a more judicious title. Such as “The legacy of discrimination behind the humble Miss” or “Past and present inequalities encoded in the simple Miss”.

In fact, the only reason I tweeted that article in the first place was because it was making a much more subtle and powerful point than simple etymology (as you would expect from one based on the work of the eminent scholar of language and gender Jennifer Coates). Going all the way back to Language and the Woman’s Place and even before, people have been trying to peg the blame on simple words. All along the response has been, but these are just words, we don’t mean anything bad by them. Or, these are just words, the real harm is done in the real world.

Many women I meet continue to like the Miss/Mrs distinction despite the long availability of the now destigmatized Ms. It was not too long ago that I set up a sign up form with only Prof Dr Mr Ms and got lots of complaints from women who wanted to keep their Miss or Mrs. So restigmatizing Miss is actively harmful to the self-image of many women whose identity is tied with that label. Feminists tend to make light of the ‘unfeminist’ cry of “I like it when men open the door to me”, or “Carrying my bag for me just shows respect”. Or going back even further, “I don’t need a vote, I exercise my influence through my husband.” But change is literally hard, it takes time and effort, so an attempt at making the world better will always making temporarily worse (at least for some people).

The fact is that Miss is bound up in a network of meanings, interactions and power relations. And even if it takes some mental pain, it’s worth picking at all it covers up.

But not every minute of every day. Sometimes, we need to say something to get from conversational point A to conversational point B and even a laden word may be better than no word. As one of the respondents in the article says:

My response is always that my name isn’t Miss; it’s Mrs Coslett. But if I’m in a school where students don’t know me and they call me Miss, I’m fine with that. They’re showing respect by giving me a title, rather than ‘hey’ or ‘oi, you’ or whatever.

Most of the time contentious words are used, challenging them is not feasible. But she’s wrong in her conclusion:

That’s just the way the English language works.

That’s absolutely not true. Just like words don’t mean anything on their own, language does not just work. It’s used to do things (to riff on Austin’s famous book) by people. It is not always used purposefully but its use is always bound in the many ways and means of people. The way we speak now is a result of centuries of little power plays, imitations of prestige, prescriptions of obedience. When you look closer, they’re all easy to see.

Things have let up considerably since the 1970s. Many fewer people are concerned about how language encodes gender inequality and it’s worthwhile reminding ourselves that many of the historical unfairnesses hidden in word histories are still with us. Just like you can’t get away with saying “I didn’t mean anything by the ‘n’ word”, you can’t just shrug off the critique of the complex tapestry of gender bias in ‘Miss’.

Miss does not “really mean” anything. It’s just a sequence of letters or sounds. And most people using it do not “really mean” anything by it. Or it does not “really mean” anything to them. But context is everything.

It is a truism to say that racism will be done away with when people don’t dislike each other because of the color of their skin. But the opposite is the case. The sign that racism has disappeared is when I can say “I really don’t like black people” simply because I don’t like the color of their skin in the same way I may prefer redheads to blondes. Preference for skin colour is then just a harmless quirk. But we’re centuries away from that because any such preference is tied to a system of discrimination going back a long way. (BTW: just to avoid misunderstanding, I personally find black skin beautiful.)

The same thing applies to “Miss”, we can’t just turn our back on its pernicious potential. Most of the time it’s hidden from sight but it’s recoverable at a moment’s notice. Because we live in a world where male is still the default position. We have to work to change that. Change our minds, hearts, cognitions and languages. They don’t just work on their own. We make them work. So let’s make them work for us. The ‘us’ we want to be, rather than the ‘us’ we used to be in the bad old days.

Photo Credit: abdallahh via Compfight cc

I object: A male feminist’s view on the Duchess of Cambridge’s Wedding dress

Welcome to our wedding
Image by bobfranklin (mostly tacit) via Flickr

Maybe I should be watching more TV but I honestly had no idea what Kate Middleton looked like. There must have been times I would have heard references to her and thought she was some kind of actress or model. And frankly, I still don’t care.

But I do care about her dress. I am quite naive in the way of things (despite my interest in the ethnography of the everyday) so the fact that it may matter what the future queen will be wearing on her wedding day was not obvious to me. And matter more to many than whether a former prime minister or two were invited. I heard about it on the Today programme this morning and realised that I had been pretty silly not to have thought about it and then all was clear when I got a text from a female friend who professed that the dress was the main thing of import.

And there’s really nothing all that wrong with that. The fate of two luminary has beens is really of no more ritual import (probably quite a bit less) than the dress of one of the key participants in the nuptial proceedings. There are all sorts of legitimate concerns such as the allusions to fashions and traditions, the nationality and status of the designer, the possibility of a radical statement being made, and so on. Dresses obviously matter. And the fact that they matter more to women than men should make them no less important.

Pince William and Kate Middleton's wedding
Image by Lea Ann Belter Bridal via Flickr

But then I saw it. It was by accident on a page talking about online streaming records (the sort of thing I take an interest in of an afternoon). And I remembered how much I hate female dresses (almost as much as women’s shoes). First, I hate them because they look uncomfrotable (but then a certain amount of discomfort is to be expected during a ritual). But more importantly I hate them because of the actual ritual symbolism. Ms Middleton was standing next to Mr Windsor who was clad in some sort of military get up as befits the protector of a nation. And she was smiling presumably to indicate some sort of emotional attachment to the man (whether a genuine affection or a public performance or a mixture of both is of no relevance to me). However, whereas his dress spoke of conquest and spoils of war, hers was all captured fecundity. She was the symbol of putting all of the women whose gaze was firmly fixed on every frill and curve in their procreative and caring place. The Royal family captured the youth and fertility of the nation into its net and was displaying its prize.

I probably would have hated any wedding dress but this one seemed to me particularly insidious in the understated manner with which it suggested tradition and a sexual act of possession being performed right before the adoring eyes. Why not break with tradition and wear Clintonesque trousers? You can allude to the past with a frilly hat if absolutely necessary! OK, perhaps here I am imputing my revolutionary desire onto a woman who probably quite enjoys the opportunity to play the role of a traditional princess. And I don’t believe there’s anything wrong with women playing traditional roles if that’s the sort of game they either enjoy or from which they can derive power. Also, it is entirely possible since I don’t speak the language of dresses that I misunderstood the symbolism of this one. Maybe it is one merging modernity with the past in a way I’m not able to understand. But even then I believe my general point stands: We need new rituals of formality for new times not reliant on gender roles just for the sake of them. And since the roles of men and women in marriage have changed, shouldn’t the way in which they are consecrated change also?

Man and Wife
Image by Beacon Radio via Flickr

All dress is a mask in the performance of one role or another. But it is important that like any actor, a woman can step away from the role she playing. There’s lots of evidence that a burqa can be an empowering statement fraught with social and political as well as gender classifications. Only it is too easy a mask to weld onto a woman’s face. Just as much as a dress stressing sexual availability while the adjacent man’s demands executive power. There is nothing in our society that justifies that division of power so why not try to invent new rituals that promote the kind of public equality we want to see.

I have nothing against men and women signalling their sexual identity through dress in the appropriate situations like clubs and pubs. But I think at formal public functions there’s no need to promulgate this stereotype. Dapper still indicates easy prosperity while resplendent or ravishing implies sexual possession. Why not have men extentuate their genitalia (as they do in many cultures) in these situations rather than pretend they’re there just to grab a woman for a bit of procreation and get back to their busy lives managing trade in the East Indies.

I started Metaphor Hacker to question the easy over-interpretation of metaphor as a trope of inevitable consequence. It is of course possible for a woman to code switch and perform important executive role while dressed in a conventional female manner. The historical interpretation of the female formal dress need not apply today (as it may not have straigthforwardly applied in the past). What I’m asking for here is a political act relying on that historical interpretation and saying ‘no more’ or at least ‘only if we really feel like it’.

However, one feature of human communication I’m particularly keen to discuss more is the notion of inventory of patterns of expressions. So although the conceptual underpinnings of the ritual may not be straightforward, if the constant unvaried performance is all that there is, women may not be able to reach into the inventory for an effortless alternative. So while dresses are something that women talk about and should not be thought of as being of lesser value, it is all too easy to see them that way. Women should not be apologetic for this and I’m sure they’re not. But we all need to be careful not to go back to the time of Odysseus when men went to war and returned to slay suitors of the women who stayed behind to weave and keep chaste!

Enhanced by Zemanta